'He's capable of killing me': PhD student alleges sexual assault by Dominican Republic official

An Ontario woman alleges she was violently sexually assaulted by a member of the Dominican Republic government while she was there conducting field research.

Woman faces barriers to criminal prosecution as deadline approaches for filing charges

Joanna Kocsis, 35, is pushing for criminal charges against a former deputy minister in the Dominican Republic who she alleges sexually assaulted her. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

An Ontario woman alleges she was violently sexually assaulted by a member of the Dominican Republic government while she was there conducting field research.

Joanna Kocsis, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, says Odalis Ledesma, who was then a deputy minister with the Dominican Ministry of Youth, was helping her make contacts for her research in Latin America in April 2017. 

She alleges that two days after they first met, he drugged her drink, rendering her unconscious, and then sexually assaulted her at the apartment she was renting from one of his family members.

"I sort of came to and he was on top of me," she recounted. "I was naked, he was raping me, he was biting me, he was holding me down."

Kocsis, 35, has been pushing for criminal charges against Ledesma, who has denied the accusations and told Dominican media the encounter was consensual.

Odalis Ledesma, a former deputy minister of youth, was fired by the country's president in early September. (Facebook)

The case was thrown into the public spotlight in the Dominican Republic in September, after a television news show learned of the story and suggested the legal paperwork was being hidden in the time-sensitive case. (Authorities have until Dec. 20 to lay charges.) Ledesma was fired by the country's president the same day, before the program went to air. 

Kocsis says she recalls Ledesma's words that night in the apartment. 

"The first thing he said to me was 'No one will believe you,'" which she says instead emboldened her.

"He committed a crime, a violent crime, and he should be held accountable."

CBC News reached out to Ledesma and his lawyers, who did not provide a statement in time for our deadline. 

Speaking to reporters in the Dominican Republic on Sept. 11, days after he was fired, Ledesma said he and Kocsis "met to have dinner and we had an intimate encounter. We had a conversation and I left."

Ledesma, during an official event with the ministry before he was fired. (Facebook)

He also questioned why it took months for her to file an official complaint.

Kocsis says minutes after he left her apartment, she called Canadian consular authorities in the Dominican Republic and followed their advice to return to Canada.

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada says "we are deeply concerned with the report of sexual assault on a Canadian citizen in the Dominican Republic." It says consular services are being provided and that officials remain in contact with local authorities.

Kocsis had a rape kit done at a Toronto hospital the day after the alleged assault.

She took photos of her bruises and kept records, including text messages Ledesma sent her the following days.

Large bruises

On April 4, 2017, the day of the alleged attack, Kocsis said she and Ledesma met with non-governmental organizations and in the evening, he suggested a work-related dinner, where he would introduce her to valuable contacts.

She says the Ledesma showed up at her door carrying a bottle of what he told her was expensive tequila, insisting they have a drink before heading out.

She says she initially refused, but he continued to insist, so she agreed.

According to records from the rape kit administered at Women's College Hospital, Kocsis reported having two shots of tequila.

Then she says she awoke, groggy, in the apartment, with him assaulting her.

I was confused about who was screaming and then I realized that it was me.— Joanna Kocsis

"I could hear screaming and I was confused about who was screaming and then I realized that it was me," she said in an interview at her Canadian lawyer's office.

When she fought him off, she said he became more violent.

"I froze and thought if he's capable of doing this, he's capable of killing me," she said.

"So I'm just going to stay still and hope that it's over soon and that I can stay alive."

Two of the bruises Joanna Kocsis says were caused during a sexual assault in the Dominican Republic. She says she took this picture almost a week later. (Submitted by Joanna Kocsis)

CBC News has viewed evidence photos taken once she returned to Canada, showing large purple bruises on her legs, arms and chest. She says most of them were caused by biting.

Kocsis was told she could not launch a criminal complaint to Dominican authorities from outside the country. She tried to file a complaint with police in Canada but learned they have no jurisdiction.

She hired a lawyer in Toronto and on June 26, 2017, she wrote to both the Dominican ambassador to Canada and the Canadian Embassy in the Dominican Republic, in an attempt to have authorities there pursue the case, even though she was outside the country.

Tight deadline

Court documents show the embassy wrote to Dominican officials in 2017, saying the allegations have "seriously worried" the Canadian government.

Kocsis says Dominican authorities reached out to her lawyer in January 2018, asking whether she would be able to participate in the investigation. She agreed on the condition she do it from Canada.

"I'm not willing to go back to the Dominican Republic, because I don't feel that my safety can be assured," Kocsis said. "I'm not willing to go through that danger and risk again."

After her case made headlines in the Dominican Republic, Kocsis learned officials there had already started an initial investigation, with a hearing held in July determining Ledesma was not a flight risk.

Megan Savard, Kocsis' Toronto lawyer, calls the case 'powerful.' (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Charges have to be laid by Dec. 20 or the case will be dropped. 

"Six months, from what I understand in the legal system isn't a lot on a good day, much less when you have this international complication involved," Kocsis said.

Her lawyer, Megan Savard, says despite what she calls a "powerful" case, it's been a challenge, given the two countries and justice systems.

"Trying to find out what the law was down there from a reputable source, given that we were dealing with an [alleged] assailant who occupied a prominent position in the government was very difficult," Savard said.

'Passive attitude'

"Time is against us," said Laura Acosta Lora, Kocsis' Dominican lawyer.

She says court documents she's reviewed appear to show officials in the Dominican Republic were dragging their feet.

"I saw a passive attitude from a body that must actively investigate," she said, in Spanish from her office in Santo Domingo. "Especially when it's a case that affects the image of one country by another one appealing for justice for one of its citizens."

Acosta Lora has spoken with the prosecutor and says there now appears to be a will to move forward.

A statement from the Dominican Attorney General's office says the case has been transferred to a different level of court, now that Ledesma is no longer part of the government, and that the case is proceeding.

Kocsis says the legal back and forth has delayed her PhD and taken away precious time she would have spent with her husband and six-year-old daughter.

"I hope one day that there's justice so that all of this effort isn't in vain so that he can't do this to anyone else."